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Taylor Swift’s Activism for Apple

TaylorSwift on TimeWhen an individual moneymaker takes a moral stand on principle, realizes it with action and wins, the activism ought to be studied as an example in success.

This week, recording artist Taylor Swift provides such an example. Swift, a pop country music star, recently took to Tumblr (a blogging platform) to write a letter of activism (read Swift’s letter here). Swift explains that Apple’s new Apple Music streaming service precludes payment to artists in the first three months. Swift argues that this is wrong. In a persuasive, simple letter implicitly based on egoism, not altruism, because she predicates the letter on achieving her own values in an explicit expression of magnanimity, Swift makes the case for what amounts to intellectual property rights. Swift advocates what Ayn Rand called the trader principle, the essence of capitalism. As Swift concludes her letter to Apple: “Please don’t ask [artists] to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Besides Swift’s fundamentally acknowledged fact that Apple’s terms are Apple’s to set, what distinguishes Swift’s activist letter from other forms of celebrity activism is her recognition of the good for being good. Swift does not malign Apple. In fact, she titles the post “To Apple, Love Taylor” and proceeds to express her “reverence” for Apple’s innovation and achievements. This demonstrates an understanding that acting in accordance with the company’s professed philosophy of human progress through new ideas is consistent with trading value for value. Harnessing the power of an artist that leftists and racists should regard as a beneficiary of “white privilege” or being among some inexplicably causeless “one percent” of wealthy millionaires, Swift, who has previously expressed support for Barack Obama, offers a perfectly rational example of selfish activism.

The letter is selfish, as against self-centered (as she points out when she writes that the issue of paying artists “is not about me”, which in this context is true), because in writing it she seeks to gain, keep and advance her values; in this case, the ability of artists to earn money to create. In a wider sense, the successful artist posting such a letter deepens the bond with fans and adds credibility to his brand. Swift’s letter succeeds on a number of levels in dispelling the myth that capitalism and benevolence are incompatible. Swift gains value as described, the struggling, unknown writer gains, her competitors also gain, and so do her patrons, employees and partners. The customer gains with greater funding for all artists which leads to more creation, variety and competition. Apple, too, gains from the compliments, publicity and Swift’s endorsement for the new platform and a better grasp of what top artists want and how they may communicate.

Capitalism is, in fact, win-win.

Taylor Swift’s letter displays an understanding of this principle. She does not seek the unearned. She also does not merely “kill them with kindness”, as a cynic might claim. The letter, praising Apple for allegiance to progress and innovation, is not structured for unearned guilt, vanity or opportunism. Swift’s letter ends with a thought which begins with the word ‘please’ extended as a courtesy, not with an arbitrary demand that Apple has a moral duty to serve others and sacrifice its profit. Swift backs her words with action, withholding her property on principle. This is the essence of good, selfish, rational activism (read my thoughts on activism here) in a dispute among good, selfish, rational men.

Those inclined to flame, troll or otherwise rant against anyone who deviates in the slightest degree from one’s values ought to look at Taylor Swift’s letter and learn from her example. This is activism that succeeds. As Apple executive Eddy Cue posted today on Twitter (and, as I teach in my social media course, social media is a crucial, legitimate tool for selfish communication), after granting Swift’s request: “We hear you, [Taylor Swift]…Love, Apple.” The exchange, namely that they are free to have it, is why I love capitalism.

Jagged Little Pill at 20

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Rock’s seminal album Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette was released 20 years ago this week. Suitably, I remember my discovery of it as purely organic to my life. I was on the brink of turning 30, early in my career and writing about the news, sports and culture for a newspaper. I went dancing one night at a club near downtown Glendale with a co-worker from the newsroom. When the first single, “You Oughta Know”, started softly before unleashing cathartic expressions with strong, rising vocals and Dave Navarro’s looping guitar licks, I knew the song was part of something larger.

It was and it is and Jagged Little Pill ages well. Its brilliance lies in perfect craftsmanship as pop. Lyrics and music are highly intimate and introspective, yet, thanks to co-writer and producer Glen Ballard, the album is remarkably well made and accessible to general audiences.

Each song is a journey and a gem; like a careful, thoughtful step in the artist’s personal progression delivered, shared and expressed with precision, realism and an unyielding desire to grow, to live life to the fullest—for more of the best of everything. In essence, Jagged Little Pill relishes one’s greedy little thoughts on life.

I know that it’s not more complicated than that. Its tunes can, like some of my favorite pop, jazz and rock, be trite, cliched and tidy, which some people can’t stand. But each song, written or co-written by Morissette, contains insight and wisdom and is expressed with originality, honesty and sincerity, rare qualities in pop music, especially in the mid-1990s. Grunge, rap and filth came online back then (some of it with talent) and this encompasses some of Alanis Morissette’s vulgar lyrics, when the world’s bloodiest century was coming to a close and, while no one talked about it, it was abundantly clear that the West’s worst enemy was coming to attack.

The era’s Clintonian malaise and melancholy, or as Smashing Pumpkins put it, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was everywhere, in the haunting “Disarm” and “1979”, in Collective Soul’s heart-wrenching “Runaway Train” (1993) and in tunes by Goo Goo Dolls, Nirvana, Tori Amos and others. Alanis Morissette, contrary to the conventional notion that she was propelled by being an angry young woman, was different; in her upright “Hand in My Pocket” and other songs, while hard-edged rock is the genre, Alanis names the negative to become and stay positive.

The album’s unspoken theme is discovering the virtue of selfishness. Every line, thought, musing and idiosyncratic phrasing upswells toward personal growth and enlightenment with the singer-songwriter as the proper beneficiary of her own actions. She is an egoist, not an altruist. From her opening statement of awareness that the world—and this is the age of O.J. Simpson getting away with murder—is in deep trouble to the knowing, rational counsel to “swallow it down” and accept that life’s unfair in “You Learn”, Alanis goes by reason, not faith. She laments lies in “Forgiven” and croons in “Head Over Feet” about a man who offers her the promise of “something rational”. She is driven by her values, chosen values, including trying to help a lost friend in “Mary Jane” and make sense of her past to make a better future in “Ironic”, an often maligned or mocked and tragically underrated song about realignment with reality.

Jagged Little Pill is not a romantic record, with songs of bitter rejection such as “Right Through You” and “Wake Up”. But Alanis always ends up finding, or striving to find, the good and feeding it. This is a good idea 20 years later and will be 20 years from now, too, whether one is free to listen to music, including an album as free-wheeling as this record is, let alone debate its merits.

So, I’m glad I danced to “You Oughta Know” 20 summers ago, glad I bought the compact disc and played it over and over and packed it when I went to Europe and was almost booked on TWA 800—isn’t it ironic?—and had it to come home to so I could listen, enjoy and think about its meaning for years to come. I’m glad I saw Alanis perform in concert in Irvine when all she had was Jagged Little Pill.

I’m also glad I’ve followed Alanis Morissette in the intervening two decades. I don’t mind one bit if her Jagged Little Pill is 13 tunes of a well-produced, pop-rock middle finger at the status quo in the closing days of the 20th century. This is an outburst of outrage displayed to find the good, at a time when what was wrong with the world ought to have been evident to everyone and wasn’t. The world has gotten worse in the 20 years since Alanis Morissette’s biting Jagged Little Pill went on sale. Whatever the artist’s intention, her hugely successful album exists as an impassioned outcry against what went wrong, seeded with lessons in setting it right and the hard, fierce and unmistakable vow to never swallow poison without a fight.

Click here to buy Jagged Little Pill.

Related readings

Review: Alanis Morissette, Havoc and Bright Lights

Review: Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour

Music articles archives

Music reviews, interviews blog archives


Movie Review: Love & Mercy

LoveandMercyPosterSkirting between madness and genius, Love & Mercy, the story of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, deftly portrays an artist driven to psychosis. With great performances and a 360-degree visual style that recreates an all-encompassing sense of anguish and agony, it’s effective in dramatizing what it feels like to lose one’s ability to connect to reality. The movie, which I saw in Hollywood Boulevard’s Cinerama Dome at a screening with Wilson, director Bill Pohlad and co-star Paul Dano (Prisoners, 12 Years a Slave), is too long and ponderous.

Also, and obviously, watching someone lose his mind in slow, encircling motions is not a pleasant experience. This is offset somewhat by a character played by Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games). She goes against Wilson’s gatekeeper (Paul Giamatti, San Andreas) to forge a safe, free bond with Wilson (John Cusack as an older adult) after the Beach Boys’ greatest success but before the resurgence of Wilson as a top artist (read my profile of Wilson’s guitarist Scott Bennett here). Thus, Love & Mercy is not a traditional biopic, though the genre is barely formed as a genre as it is.

Instead, Love & Mercy is a serialized tragedy in three interlocking, revolving parts with an emphasis on Paul Dano as young Wilson in the legendary southern California surf-rock band’s most creative period and with an upswing courtesy of the female lead.

Musically, do not expect any but the most exhaustive examination of Brian Wilson and only Brian Wilson and, unless you’re intimately familiar with the Beach Boys, do not expect a chronological career trajectory like Jersey Boys. The deconstruction of “Good Vibrations”, a huge Beach Boys’ hit which later was the basis of a 1990s’ rap song, is a fascinating glimpse at the climax of Wilson’s breakdown and triumph.

Thematically, Love & Mercy lacks nuance and certain key details, insinuating that Wilson’s decline into madness was caused by his father, his bandmates and his psychiatrist, which seems overly simple even on the movie’s terms. Mental illness and its treatment are extremely difficult to diagnose and medicate and Love & Mercy would benefit from a basic orientation and guide to some of what Wilson was going through. As Wilson himself indicated in his post-screening comments, differentiating and dealing with what may be paranoid schizophrenia or some other condition is not easy to judge, let alone depict with clarity and understanding. The whole net experience of the film is alternately too disorienting and disturbing to know when to laugh and when to cry.

Psychologically, the Banks character, the easiest for general audiences to identify with, is also the most elusive. Would an ex-model selling Cadillacs really chase after an ex-rocker who’s taken too many acid trips? Perhaps, and Banks makes Melinda, the character’s name, believable. With lingering journeys and flashbacks, it is hard to track, follow and integrate the story. As Wilson, Dano and his older counterpart, John Cusack, are excellent and Giamatti is chilling as a mental health therapist with questionable tactics and practices.

Love & Mercy, as by now should be clear, is hard to watch. But it is engrossing, especially when one considers the context of the times. The drug culture figures into Wilson’s decline very interestingly, just as he’s becoming aware of the need to liberate himself from his abusive parent. It’s there to draw him into the death spiral of the hippies’ lifestyle and it does, which the movie shows (though it spares Wilson the fact of the band’s affiliation with mass murderer Charles Manson, who embodies the essence of the hippies’ philosophy). But, as Steve Jobs argued (I think mistakenly), the drug culture fed some of the brightest minds, too. Whatever one thinks of drugs, rock, the Beach Boys and Wilson, Love & Mercy‘s heartbreaking, if selective and wrenching, plea to love and understand those who are not easy to love and understand, comes across.

TV Review: American Ballet Theatre (PBS)

Class-1American Ballet Theatre: A History premieres tonight on PBS (check local listings). It is not to be missed. In fact, it’s the most informative and enriching non-fiction television programming I’ve seen in years.

The new, 90-minute documentary by Ric Burns is a fascinating condensation of ballet’s essential history fused with this particular company’s story, culminating in an elevated theme about man, his art and his history. The program is really driven by Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet author and dance historian Jennifer Homans, the most knowledgeable, objective and philosophical among the film’s many strong voices and interviewed participants.

Homans is one of several dancers, former dancers or company experts to assert that ballet is both transcendent and ephemeral and this is foremost a precise, thoughtful and gentle study of this uniquely fine art. But it is Homans who articulates that ballet is both an integration of traditional or classical art forms and a radical advancement of the arts.

Consider that ballet originated, as she explains, in France as an expression of masculinity, both as a radical new art form in the 18th century and based on certain rules, spun from the Renaissance, framed by aristocracy and taking measure of man in pursuit of his excellence and nobility. Yes, the body’s movements in precision were created, Homans says, as a living representation of the whole man, with the male dancer not reviled or subsidiary as he is today. Only after the French Revolution, when the will of the collective replaced the rule of the king did woman takes precedence in ballet. “The male dancer is really hated by the time you get to the 19th century,” Homans contends. The ballerina emerged, she explained, citing the ghost Giselle among others, as a symbol of the irrational and the supernatural. American Ballet Theatre: A History really delves into the essential ideas and evolution of the ballet.

Ballet moved to Russia during the period when Czarist Russia embraced French culture and ballet came back to the West following the Communist takeover of Russia. Therefore, Homans tells the audience, in stark, soothing lines interspersed with pictures, archival footage and breathtaking pictures of dancers from the dance, the roots of American ballet lie in the collapse of the Russian Empire and what she calls “the phenomenon of exile” with dancers such as prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, for instance, who fled Russia and brought ballet to venues across America.

This Homans describes as a diaspora of Russian teachers who seed ballet in America. Indeed, she points out that the story of ballet in the 20th century is the story of the confrontation between the United States of America and Communist Russia. Choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille were trying to redefine a Russian tradition in American terms. Robbins and De Mille are two of the four main choreographers figured into the American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) history. With the other two, Antony Tudor and George Balanchine, they defined ABT’s objective.

mBT0659-150x150Each segment on the four choreographers is interesting for its own reasons. For example, Tudor had a dark side as ABT’s artistic conscience; his primary achievement is that he wanted to make a ballet not about fairies, birds and elves but about real people. The company grew organically with its artistic progress, according to those interviewed, including the intellectuals. Among the artists who are pivotal to the company’s formation, Alicia Alonso (pictured here at left) is interviewed, contributing some insightful thoughts on the art of dance, recreating what it feels like in poetic, evocative words. Others featured or addressed in ABT’s remarkable story include the late Donald Saddler and Frederic Franklin, dancers Susan Jaffe and Julie Kent, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and artistic director Kevin McKenzie, Misty Copeland, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes and Hee Seo and dance critics Anna Kisselgoff and the late Clive Barnes. Notably absent is the company’s former dancer and director Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose defection in Toronto from Soviet Russia in 1974 “led to an incubation of talent”. On the other hand, founding member and co-director (1945-1980) Lucia Chase, who is somewhat victimized here at the expense of Mr. Baryshnikov, is fully chronicled.

That ABT began simply as Ballet Theatre elicits the interesting fact that the word American preceded the company’s title in 1950 during the State Department’s sponsorship of a postwar tour through Europe; the dancers wore parachutes in the summer of 1950, according to one dancer, as they traveled as cargo in Air Force planes. As Stalin’s murderous Soviet regime, neither named nor addressed here, cracked down on liberty, America took the cultural lead in ballet. ABT’s worldwide reputation became legendary. This is thanks in no small measure to defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose discipline and emphasis on the ballet corps while ABT director greatly advanced American Ballet Theatre when he took over in 1980.

If the politics of ballet are slightly obscured or sidestepped, the art of the dance is not. Ballet is described and depicted admiringly and even reverently, especially by Ms. Homans, as an expression of goodness and happiness and one commentator observes that ballet is a metaphysical reassurance that “there’s something beautiful and good and worthwhile inside all of us”.

This is true, as evidenced by Buddy Squires’ exquisite slow motion capture photography, and the cinematography of the dancers, while not a recreation of ballet as it is intended to be seen live to music, is simply stunning and jaw-dropping. The film matches the well-chosen words by Alonso, Homan and others. “Transporting dance is so direct that everything else falls away for those moments and the audience enters that and mirrors the dancer,” someone says. Such transference between dancer and audience is exalted for both and that is partly captured, examined and contemplated here.

Encapsulating this extraordinary experience, Jennifer Homans concludes: “[Ballet is dance] as the arc of a life; it has a beginning, a middle and end and then it’s gone. It marks the passage of time.” Tonight’s American Ballet Theatre: A History, like an expertly conducted, choreographed and danced ballet, skillfully expresses, and also rediscovers, such grand moments in dance.

American Ballet Theatre: A History, a production of Ric Burns’ Steeplechase Films and Thirteen Productions for WNET, is part of the Emmy-winning American Masters series, which explores themes, stories and personalities of masters past and present. The film will be available on DVD July 14.

TV Review: Empire

empireFox’s breakout hit show, Empire, is an expensively entertaining blend of glamour and a stylized version of a certain black urban subculture. The recording industry’s hip hop genre is the Philadelphia-based series’ setting. The plot entails a gangster type, his determined ex-wife and three sons. The theme is no deeper than any daytime soap opera. Empire‘s unique mixture of Dynasty-scale production with a Glee-type musical cycle distinguishes the Fox drama.

Neither as broad and campy as ABC’s 1981-1989 series Dynasty—think of Empire as a black, hip hop soap with shorter, faster scenes and story arcs—nor as implausible and preposterous as ABC’s current hit Scandal, the first season of producer Lee Daniels’ Empire sticks with a solid story premise. Its leading male character is a hoodlum named Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, of Hustle & Flow, St. Vincent and Iron Man). With a nefarious and mysterious criminal background, Lyon has to some extent built a legitimate business, the Lyon empire with its popular music and related products, including a nightclub named Leviticus. Empire—that’s the company’s name—is run by Lyon and his college-bred first-born son, Andre (Trai Byers, Selma). Two other sons, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) are groomed as the label’s recording artists.

Lyon’s three sons compete during the first season’s central conflict to be the heir apparent because Pop has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This soap opera cliche is well played, however, by Howard, an excellent actor who is somewhat constrained by this Jekyll and Hyde type role. From episode to episode, Lucious Lyon alternates between murderous, philandering thug and moneymaking visionary. Realistic dialogue keeps Empire grounded while stunning costume and set design dazzle and this balance distracts from the occasionally overwrought Scandal-like plots and forestalls total lunacy like later seasons of Dallas and Dynasty. Lyon’s sons take after their pappy, too, especially Andre, known as Dre, who is both the cliched dastardly, greedy and maniacal businessman and the cliched stud. The middle son, the most talented artist on Empire’s roster, is a closeted homosexual. The youngest is an impudent brat with a heart of gold and mommy issues (Naomi Campbell).

Speaking of maternity, the ex-wife—like Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington Colby on Dynasty—steals and powers the company, the family empire and the show. Her character’s name is Cookie Lyon and she’s an ex-con played by Taraji P. Henson (Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) who raises everyone’s stakes and comes back to Empire to get a piece of what she knows she seeded and arguably ought to at least co-own. Cookie, like the title character on BET’s Being Mary Jane, combines sass, ghetto and soul and Henson constantly keeps each plot contrivance from ruining all the credibility, plausibility and fun. She brings a knowing, winking playfulness spun with seriousness, so when she sticks up for her gay son, gets in her ex-husband’s face about business or sets her sights on a company security man (Derek Luke, Sparkle), it’s involving. Viewers may tune in for the melodrama and the music—by Timbaland and mostly good, though often forgettable and never inspiring—but they’re sticking around for some of what Cookie’s cooking up as she’s almost always got the best lines, though Smollett as a Lyon with integrity comes close, especially in scenes with Terrence Howard. A supporting cast of players is also good and it’s not hard to see why this briskly paced, smart, hip, musical show’s a smash for Fox. Rupert Murdoch ought to thank Henson as Cookie first for that.

Howard’s Lyon as the dying kingpin holds his own and defines the first season’s themes of crime, family and music. When the family comes together toward the end and subplot gaps become apparent, Empire‘s tip toward style over substance starts to show and grind. Plot points shift too quickly—at times, Lucious Lyon is almost sociopathic—which undermines the show’s foundation. Characterizations are realistically differentiated, with some issues such as blacks’ cultural collectivism and conservatism dramatized to fine effect, and Henson’s Cookie usually freshens up the entertainment with some display of humor or reformed convict/absent mother wisdom. But this character also has someone executed for sending a rose, so it’s best to enter Empire with an appropriately arched attitude.